We just spent the weekend at a missions festival on the Eastern Shore of Alabama, representing Konbit Haiti and the work our friends there are doing and the things of which we get to be a part. It was really a sweet time of seeing old friends, making new friends, and getting the opportunity to share about what all is happening in Haiti. Throughout this entire time, there was an openness that I did not expect and a conversation buried underneath much of our reports on Haiti: the complexities of the problems "we" are trying to fix and the importance of intention.
Let's face it, the Eastern Shore of Alabama is not a diverse group of people. But, I think they/we represent a lot of the problem with conversation around the US and the world. In many circles, the "change makers" are not diverse and are not the people who, in reality, should be making these decisions on projects, programs, and policies.
This is particularly evident in churches. There is still much disparity within the church based on race and social status, which can impact the overall conversation of outreach amongst other things. When one group of people with a general one set of eyes looks at a problem, they see what they want to see. Often times, this means making general assumptions about entire groups of people and making complex issues like poverty and injustice seem black and white, with simple solutions.
I don't think it is the intention of people who are in a place of privilege or power to minimize problems of others. I really don't. But, I also think this is the only choice we have when we surround ourselves with people who think just like us. We don't understand how someone could really have different circumstances, different experiences with the same systems we know. Instead of keeping the "other" at arm's length so we can live our lives in blissful ignorance, we need to challenge ourselves to bring in the "other" even when bringing them in means challenging our own point of view.
I was listening to a podcast the other day in which a very wise Christena Cleveland suggests that a system of beliefs, like Christianity, was brought to people in the middle of turmoil and suffering and hardship. How can we properly understand it now as so many of the predominant members of society are the loudest representatives of this religion? I think her words have stuck with me for the last two weeks, partially in part, because of all the other conversations I have had with people lately.
So many friends and acquaintances of mine have felt comfortable discussing with me their disappointment with the church or with the systems of the nation we live in. They have opened up to me in bars and coffee shops and their homes and my home about how disgruntled they feel, confusing religion and people who perhaps misrepresent Jesus with Jesus Himself. They wonder how people could be so hateful, how people could turn their backs on entire people groups, how transforming spirituality can really be if it renders people heartless and cruel.
Spending time with people this weekend has reminded me that while no one is perfect, there seems to be a line in the sand between people who can get there and people who can't. And it seems like what needs to be explored is the depth of intention. Because all of us, to some extent, end up acting like those around us. We experience the privilege of being the wealthiest nation in the world but turn a blind eye to those suffering around the world. When we do go, we bring so much ethnocentrism and paternalism that those we are there to serve end up feeling less empowered and excited. While we bring these things with us often unintentionally, this seems like such a time to examine such intentions.
There's a sign that hangs in many an elementary school classroom and it spells out T.H.I.N.K., reminding students to ask themselves five questions before they speak out. Is it true? It is helpful? Is it inspiring? Is it necessary? Is it kind? And while I love the thought of using this poster in elementary schools, I also love the idea of using it in our adult lives and regular interactions with those who are different from us.
Before you make all of these assumptions about the poor in your town, make sure that it's true.
Before you start your program or project in your church or organization, make sure that it will actually be helpful.
Before you speak about other cultures or groups to your friends and family, make sure that it is inspiring.
Before you seek to help solve a problem that you have not ever been directly affected by, make sure it is necessary.
Before you talk about another culture or group, viewing them from the outside, perhaps you should also make sure it is kind.
These guidelines are great to consider when we think about the "other" and consider our own intention. We should not be offended when we learn that what we think is covered in decades of privilege or misunderstanding. We should be excited to learn and apply this to our own relationships and work.
In the same way, this should not discourage us from ever entering into any conversation with the poor or other. We should not be so set in who we are that welcoming in a different voice throws us off. We should allow ourselves to be open and challenged by others. It seems to come down to this: if our intent is to truly be helpful and open then this will show by how willing we are to learn from our mistakes. By contrast, if our intent is to be the hero, we will by default not be willing to listen to other points of view. If we feel entitled to give with string attached, we will not be able to listen well.
We can apply these principles I shared by involving the people we want to help. Believe me, they have been thinking about how to help or change their communities and systems long before we even knew about it. When we can match good intentions with wise and insightful local leadership, something amazing happens. Its magic to see the ways that things can change when people feel encouraged and empowered, even when the scales have always seemed off balance.
Don't withdraw from all the important conversation that is happening in the world today. Don't do this especially when you feel like you don't want to "get it wrong," because I feel like so much of it comes from our intent. If you want to help, do it. Get out there. But don't do it alone and don't do it with the wrong intention.